Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Monsterpiece Theater: Carnival of Souls (1962)

Before we get started…I just wanted to say that this year, we will be continuing with the Universal Monster Mash reviews. There are a few left to cover, (including one that Andrew absolutely insisted I review as part of the series). The problem is that my schedule didn’t give me the time I needed to watch all the necessary films for the next Monster. Fortunately, last year I had jotted down an outline for a review that I never got around to. So, if you’ll permit me, I’m going to go briefly off topic and discuss an independent cult classic from the early 1960’s.

A Rather Odd Introduction

Okay, for a guy who enjoys writing film reviews as much as I do, it’s time I made an unusual confession: I rarely, if ever, go to movie theaters anymore. (I almost gave them up after seeing Captain America: Civil War.) In fact, the only thing I go to see regularly on the big screen is the Rifftrax group. A successor comedy troupe to Mystery Science Theater, (made of the show’s former writers/performers), Mike, Kevin, and Bill are still at work making fun of Hollywood releases and B-grade shlock. And their live shows are about all I go to see on the big screen nowadays.
So, it was at a Rifftrax Live Halloween show three years ago that I was introduced to ‘Carnival of Souls’ – well, a colorized version of ‘Carnival of Souls’ with a constant barrage of jokes aimed at the film’s low budget and flaws. And yet, despite the comedic setting, odd color, and, at times, near Manos- level budget, there was something about his film that didn’t let me forget about it.


The Story

Things begin somewhat abruptly when Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) and her two friends run some red lights and race another car toward a bridge in Kansas. The two autos bump and Mary’s car falls off the bridge and CRASHES into the river. Dredging crews fail to find the car, but Mary is rescued when she appears almost out of nowhere on the river’s muddy bank.
Two days later, Mary leaves for a new job in Saint Lake City as a church organist. However, along the way, her attention is drawn to an abandoned pavilion/amusement park along the darkening road. She then CRASHES into a ditch when a ghoulish-looking figure (director Herk Harvey, known only as the Man), appears on the road. Mary manages to get back on the road and, unable to find the class-five full-roaming vapor, makes it into town and tries to start a new life.
However, the Man keeps appearing every now and then. There are also times where Mary finds herself unable to communicate with people, as though she were invisible. And finally, Mary also feels drawn to the abandoned pavilion, which she visits first with her boss, the pastor (who refuses to set foot on the property), and then again, against the advice of a doctor trying to help understand what’s going on. (But, to be honest, he does hurt his credibility by admitting he’s not a psychiatrist. That’s where a lack of PhD’s in parapsychology and psychology will get you.)

Things reach a head when, while envisioning ghouls dancing in the pavilion’s ballroom, Mary plays a macabre song on the church organ in a trance-like state. The pastor finds the music ‘sacrilegious’ and informs her that the board of choirs has terminated her employment and she must vacate the organ bench immediately. Mary tries to forget what happened by going on a date with her obviously rape-intentioned neighbor, Mr. Linden (professional scene-chewer Sidney Berger). However, another hysterical sighting of the Man in her room causes even this guy to freak out and run away. Mary decides it’s time to try and escape.
The next day, while waiting for car repairs, Mary again finds herself unable to communicate with anyone. After running across town, (and encountering more ghouls), she heads for the therapist’s office- only to find the Man sitting in the chair. Mary wakes up in her car and after NEARLY CRASHING, drives back to the pavilion. There, she watches as the ghouls rise out of the water of Great Salt Lake, and begin to dance. Say what you want about these spooks. They have no trouble crossing the streams.
Mary then sees an undead version of herself dancing with the Man, which leads to only one possible action…
Mary: “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!”
Ghouls: “GET HER!!”
The ghosts chase Mary out of the pavilion, through the dried-up docks, and, as she screams hysterically, across the sand. And can you blame her? I mean, it’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere. Oh, and she falls and the ghouls finally get her. Later, a team of police, the pastor, and the doctor find Mary’s footprints- and only Mary’s footprints- on the beach toward the lake, but no trace of her, or of tracks back to the pavilion. Back in Kansas, a car is dredged up, containing the bodies of three girls. One of them is Mary. Thus, proving there’s no place like home- even when you’re dead.
‘I Want to Make a Movie this Time’

‘CoS’ (if you’ll pardon my use of abbreviations), was made by Herk Harvey and other employees of Centron in Lawrence, Kansas. Like ACI and Coronet, Centron’s bread and butter was churning out educational short films. You know, the often ten-minute-long things Baby Boomers and Gen Xers had to watch at school about various professions, problem -solving situations, ethics, foreign countries, etc. Harvey’s own resume included such classics as ‘Why Study Industrial Arts?’ and ‘Shake Hands with Danger.’ Eventually, however, he got the bug to make a movie.
The inspiration for his magnus opum came, as Harvey put it, when he drove past the ruined Saltair Pavilion/Amusement Park outside Salt Lake City and imagined a parade of ghouls rising out of Great Salt Lake where they proceeded to dance in the pavilion’s main ballroom. He told his friend and screenwriter, John Clifford to write a script any way he wanted, as long as it ended with that scene. The production that followed was almost a clinic on how to make a movie on a minuscule budget. The filmmakers had to go around town in Lawrence asking businessmen to donate to their cause. However, despite the generosity of the locals, the crew had almost no money for special effects or post-production, forcing them to use news-style cameras and guerrilla-filming techniques. (This included paying off- or ‘bribing’- locals in Salt Lake City to let them film in and around certain buildings instead of getting official permits.) Mary’s job as an organist -and the film’s original score, which is entirely organ music- was determined by Clifford’s relationship with executives at an organ-making factory in Lawrence. Harvey- who was also an actor- even played the lead ghoul (‘the Man’) himself to save on the cost of hiring another actor. But despite the gruesome, eye-opening experiences of making a feature for the first time, the biggest- and most unfortunate- shocks were yet to come.
In post-production, some footage of the ghouls approaching the pavilion from the lake was overexposed and lost. Nothing serious. Except…it was only the scene that showed the ghouls walking from Great Salt Lake to the pavilion!!! In other words, the first scene director Harvey thought of and got the whole production off and running was lost, never to see the inside of a cinema. *Sigh* Life isn’t fair. And if you need further proof, try this: the company that Harvey sold the distribution rights to turned out to be a scam job, resulting in a complete loss of all earnings. (Harvey got word while on assignment for Centron in South America.) And just as bad, if not worse, the filmmakers forgot to copyright the original print, making the film public domain from the start and never earning a penny in royalties for its creators.

Now there’s a postscript that’ll leave you terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.
The Good…

Watching this film for the first time at a comedy event and in color probably wasn’t the best way to evaluate it. The comedians kept drawing attention to the film’s slowness and repetitiveness. Plus, the colorization (as I later found out), seriously damaged the film’s onscreen appearance. So, I did the right thing: I watched the original black-and-white. It turns out, in some respects, the film is stronger than I anticipated.
Like a classic film noir, ‘CoS’ skillfully uses back and white. The shots of Saltair in the dark are truly menacing. Opened in the 1890’s, the former amusement park had closed several years prior due to a combination of competition and the receding of Great Lake due to droughts. (Hence the chase under the dried-out dock at the end.) The decrepit state of the place, its long, unlit tunnels and rooms, and its massive, shadow-enshrouded main pavilion are the epitome of a former place of fun and happiness having been corrupted and turned evil. At other times, Mary’s face is the only illuminated part of the scene, making it feel as if the darkness is creeping closer and closer towards her. Like her, we want to focus on the light and not see what the darkness may be hiding. (The scene filmed from a roof where Mary looks up from an empty alley between the tall buildings of Salt Lake City and screams, “Why won’t anybody hear MEEE???” is quite unnerving with its shadows and buildup.) Plus, when Mary is invisible to other people, the film seems to blur a little. Later on, I learned that Harvey had tinted the film with a cyan (greenish-blue) color to give the scene a dreamy, ethereal feeling. It’s as though Mary is fading away into her surroundings when this happens, the spirit world pulling her closer and against her will.
And it goes without saying, the white makeup used for the ghouls’ faces is much more effective and death-like in black-and-white.

…and the Bad (There is no Ugly)

However, despite the moody atmosphere the film creates, the plot and characters are quite a letdown. I watched this film with a family member and he figured out the twist before the halfway point. He said it was like a long episode of the ‘Twilight Zone.’ I can see why he thinks that. The filmmakers don’t create enough drama between the characters to hide Mary’s fate.
In fact, the acting is so flat that I completely misinterpreted the movie the first time I saw it. Granted, this was largely because of a joke in the Rifftrax version: when the car is dredged up at the end, comedian Kevin Murphy said, “What? Was this whole thing just one big misdirection?” Well, it fooled me. Instead of being in the real world, I thought the entire story had taken place either in limbo or in Mary’s head before her soul is sucked into the Great Beyond. And, odd as this may seem, this led to me pondering how the story could have been made stronger.

‘Carnival of Souls’ – Rustbelt’s Special Edition

As noted above, the characters are a weak spot for the film. The actors barely emote, often appearing flat on screen and only going through the motions. Many a YouTube critic has undoubtedly chalked this up to filmmakers who specialized in industrial films making a movie that feels like an industrial film. In other words, slavishly following the script, going literally from point to point with little, if any, creativity. But such thoughts are rather insulting to a film that achieves a great amount of atmosphere. And I think I’ve found out the reasons for these shortcomings.

While researching this movie a year ago, I watched an interview with Herk Harvey that explained his original intention: that Mary was a woman who never really ‘lived’ and wasn’t ready to die; thus, after the crash, she fought back against death to try and enjoy life, only to find she no longer could and that her time was up. Kind of like a near-death experience with actual death. Harvey regretted not showing Mary’s life prior to the crash, as the contrast would’ve helped the original story idea.
Another clue came from a print interview with screenwriter John Clifford, who explained his “secret” in writing ‘CoS.’ He said that he deliberately wrote the supporting characters to show no sympathy for Mary, suggesting that they cannot connect to her because she’s no longer part of this world and is an unaware ghost, (or poltergeist, as Harvey called her). Hilligoss’s flat portrayal was supposed to show her newfound inability to connect with a world she no longer belongs in, despite her desires to the contrary. While I admire the intention, I think the effect backfired. It created a host of stale performances that have little to no effect on Mary or the story.

So, I pondered and wondered… “what if?”

What if the pastor and the doctor tried harder to reach Mary? This might go with my original idea that Mary was in limbo. The Man could be the Devil, while the other two could be more angelic, if flawed, figures, trying to pull her back into the light. The pastor could appeal to her spiritually, while the doctor tries to interpret her situation. This might even put Mary in a almost Scrooge-like position. In other words, she would have one last chance to avoid eternal punishment and try for Heaven. Perhaps she not only led an unfulfilled life, she led a self-centered, mean-spirited one which will lead her to the dark corners of the afterlife.
And here’s another wrinkle: I‘ve barely mentioned Linden, the sleazy neighbor. I don’t know why, but when I think of him, I think of Lampwick from ‘Pinocchio.’ Here me out on this. Both are characters who are mired in vices. Obviously, Lampwick meets a terrible punishment for living a life of laziness, lawlessness, and pursuing only hollow pleasures. We can assume, if this were limbo, that Linden is set to meet a similar fate. Both characters also have another thing in common: both are trying to corrupt an innocent, (well, an alleged innocent in Mary’s case). Since both situations could be metaphors for the path to Hell, Linden and Lampwick are essentially damning another while damning themselves. Personally, I think it’s an angle that could’ve worked, with Linden as an unknowing devil’s advocate. What do you think?
(Little Known Fact: Did you know that in the scene in ‘Pinocchio’ where the boat is approaching Pleasure Island, that the island is drawn to resemble the entrance to Hell? Oh, it’s true. It’s based on illustrations from a late 19th/early 20th century copy of the ‘Divine Comedy’ in Walt Disney’s personal artbook collection.)

So, overall…

What is ‘Carnival of Souls?’ A fine example of indie filmmakers making the best use of their limited resources to craft an effective film? An overly-long knockoff episode of the ‘Twilight Zone’, shamelessly padded in lieu of enough script to reach feature film length? A parable about not letting women drive?
I’ll leave you with two takeaways from this film. ‘Carnivals of Souls’, much like the current political scene, deals only in extremes. There is no middle ground. (Hence no ‘Ugly.) What it does right (atmosphere), it does very well. Where it falters (characters), it falls hard. It seems almost all viewers either love it or hate it. And it’s easy to see why this film is both praised and dismissed. Therefore, the best way to decide to just take a look a look at it and decide for yourself. Just head on over to Youtube.

‘Carnival of Souls’

The second is more of an announcement. Next week, we return to our Universal Monster Mash, which means it’s gonna take more than pasty-faced ghouls in funerary prom outfits to scare me. Cause I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
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Saturday, October 27, 2018

Monsterpiece Theater: Universal Monster Mash- The Wolf Man

by Rustbelt

Well, according to the calendar, there was a full moon this week. I couldn’t verify this as it’s been rather cloudy around here. But I’m told the moon was full, which might explain all the howling from here to London.. Also, said moonrise preceded a lot of cold, wet weather around my neck of the woods. So, maybe it was a bad moon rising, after all!

Okay, enough bad moon jokes solely for the sake of song links. We’re here to talk about Universal’s take on werewolves. And given that Larry Talbot isn’t alone in any of his sequels, (unlike his Monster contemporaries), we’re sure to have ourselves a graveyard smash just in time for Halloween! (All right, all right. I’ll stop there.)

Wolves have been humanity’s face of evil since Antiquity. The Greek writer Aesop always used the wolf as the symbol of cruelty. In ‘The Inferno,’ Dante finds his way initially blocked by a fearsome she-wolf. And, of course, it’s a wolf that wants to eat Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. Wolves symbolize the inner animal nature that still dwells within us and occasionally surfaces. In the modern world, we see this nature take the form of street violence, serial killers, cannibalism, and other terrible crimes. The transformation into a werewolf represents a reversion to primitive times; the loss of civilization and progress that we humans have long defined ourselves by.

In classic folklore, people often become werewolves- the word seems to be Germanic in origin, referring to a “Wolf-Man,” or “Man-Wolf”- voluntarily. This often meant putting on an enchanted wolf hide, drinking water from a wolf’s footprint, or rubbing magical lotion on one’s skin. Little wonder why those who became wolves were often hunted and quickly executed.

With that in mind, probably no monster has been influenced by Hollywood other than the werewolf. I mean, almost everything we associate with this horrific creature of the night comes to us from movies. Think about it: the full moon, bites, pentagrams, the use of silver, trying to kill a most-loved one…all these are Hollywood inventions, often for storytelling purposes. Some stuck, some didn’t. The central role of wolves representing humanity at its worst hasn’t changed, though. And that’s where the terror comes from.

Werewolf of London (Universal, 1935) Trailer

Plot: In faraway Tibet, Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) leads a search for the mariphasa, a rare flower that only blooms in moonlight. Shortly after finding one, he is attacked by a feral-like creature. He survives, but is bitten in the process. Back in London, during a society meeting, Glendon is warned by a colleague, Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland) of the University of Carpathia(?!), that he was bitten by a werewolf and will become one himself unless he uses the blossoms of the mariphasa to counteract the effects. Glendon, naturally, ignores the warnings until his moonlight lamp causes hair to grow on his hand and, later, the full moon causes him to completely transform. Also, the blossoms of the mariphasa mysteriously vanish. Glendon also learns that wolf cannot be satiated each night until it kills and that it will inevitably try to kill its most loved one. He tries locking himself inside a room at an inn and, later, inside a cellar. Both attempts fail.
Finally, with all of London’s finest searching for a murderer, Glendon returns to his lab just as the full moon rises, only to find Dr. Yogami stealing the final mariphasa flower. Glendon realizes that Yogami was the werewolf that attacked him in Tibet; he was searching for the mariphasa specifically to control his lycanthropy. Werewolf-Glendon attacks and kills Yogami before looking his wife, Lisa (Valerie Hobson), ostensibly to kill her, too. But Glendon is shot by the police and dies, though not before uttering some final words of thanks to the cops and comfort to his wife.
Thoughts and Background: This, not the more famous film starring Lon Chaney, Jr., is Universal’s first foray into the world of werewolves. It portrays lycanthropy as exotic, with the “disease” implied to come from the East (in this case, Tibet). Hm, this isn’t unlike ‘Dracula,’ where another contagion- vampirism- is also brought from the East- Transylvania- to invade England.

The werewolf in this film isn’t as beast-like as other incarnations. The full moon, infection by biting, and human-like creatures (folklore always has werewolves being fully-shaped wolves), all make their pop culture debut here. Interestingly, when Dr. Glendon dies, although still in wolf form, he’s able to speak and talk with his human for a few moments. And earlier, after transforming and his ‘wolf mind’ taking over, he still manages to grab a coat, scarf, and top hat before prowling! That leads to a connection for this film.
Dr. Glendon and his wolf alter-ego are clearly portrayed as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jekyll’s the easy one: Glendon is a solitary scientist who neglects society to pursue his vocation. But with the above-noted wardrobe, he actually looks like classic portrayals of Mr. Hyde while preying in the back alleys of London. Cape and everything! I guess this means if Hyde represents our vile ‘shadow self,’ then Hyde, for some people, is clearly a furry.
Henry Hull as Dr. Wilfred Glendon (the Werewolf): Hull really does a good job here. He naturally plays a self-assured scientist who gradually falls apart. However, he also excels at showing the madness his character feels as the animal side takes over, showing the line between man and beast to be extremely thin here. It’s a nice idea that I think should be examined more often.

But let me tell you a tale of the make-up before moving on. According to popular legend, the minimalist look for this werewolf was the result of Hull not wanting to spend much time in the makeup chair. Last year, however, I watched a Svengoolie segment when the titular host revealed what Hull’s great-nephew told him. It seems Jack Pierce had created a more wolf-like appearance for this film. However, Hull objected on the grounds that the script required the other characters to slightly recognize Glendon, even in wolf-form. Hull apparently took his case to studio boss Carl Laemmle Jr., who agreed with him. A furious Pierce had no choice but comply. (He would later use his discarded design 6 years later.) Nevertheless, this film’s werewolf, with its malevolent widow’s peak and massive fangs, has been extremely influential and still inspires horror fans today.

The Wolf Man (Universal, 1941) Trailer

Plot: After learning of the death of his brother, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns to his family home in (what I’ve read) is Wales. He’s been away in the States for eighteen years after an unexplained falling out with the family, but quickly reconciles with his father, Sir John (Claude Rains). He then traverses the town, trying to make a date with a German-accented(?) woman, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers)- only after he spied on her through a telescope first! After purchasing a walking stick with a silver head of a wolf on it, Larry finally goes go out with Gwen and her friend, Jenny (Fay Helm) on a trip to a camp of Gypsy fortune tellers with Transylvanian accents (hang in there).
Disaster strikes when a Gypsy named Bela (Bela Lugosi) sees a pentagram on Jenny’s hand and she is soon attacked and killed by a wolf. Larry kills the wolf, but not before being bitten. He wakes up to learn that a man’s body- the gypsy Bela- was found at the site. After a series of strange events, Larry visits Bela’s mother, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), who says Bela was a werewolf and warns Larry of his fate. With the gypsy camp suddenly in chaos from fear of another werewolf attack, Larry rushes home, transforms, and wakes up outside the next day.

The next day, Larry learns a gravedigger was killed. Unable to attend church as the villagers now view him with suspicion, (he’s being investigated for Bela’s death), he finds Gwen and sees the pentagram- symbol of the wolf’s next victim- on her hand. He tries to lock himself up, but the moon rises and it’s no use. He briefly becomes human again long enough for Sir John to lock Larry in his room, but the transformation happens again and the wolf finds Gwen in a Fog-Enshrouded Forest. Finally, Sir John uses Larry’s silver cane to repeatedly strike the wolf. The film ends as Larry changes back and Maleva chants over him, declaring him free.
Thoughts and Background: Honestly, this is one of those times where I think to myself, “What more is there to say?” Few films in horror are this iconic- from Lon Chaney’s werewolf makeup to the famous rhyme, “Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” And of course, there’s Malvera’s funerial admonishment, “The way you walked was thorny though no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Now you will have peace for eternity.” This is also the film that introduced the idea of silver being the only thing that can kill a werewolf. What more is there to say? Well, a few things.

For one, this film lays on the wolf imagery heavy-handed from the start and everyone’s up front about it. Gwen wears half-moon earrings; she discusses the legend with Larry in the shop; Larry buys a cane with a silver wolf’s head; Sir John discusses werewolves with Larry; Jenny and Gwen discuss the werewolf legend with Larry; and all three characters have said the rhyme by the film’s 20-minute mark; and, also, Larry, while shooting at a rifle range at a fair later on, refuses to shoot a wooden wolf on the target range. Well, it was post-1939 (i.e. after ‘Son of Frankenstein’), and Universal wasn’t so keen on subtlety anymore. Personally, I feel the first part is almost thick enough to be comedic. However, this film, like ‘Dracula,’ has a secret weapon- a cast that overcomes he script.
Claude Rains, naturally, does a fine job as Sir John. He calls Larry “my boy,” and is very paternal, going from supportive to slightly cross when he feels Larry is becoming paranoid. Evelyn Ankers uses an accent that I’m not sure if it’s Welsh or not, but plays hard-to-get with Chaney and drives her scenes. (Though, honestly, Chaney makes me uncomfortable when he flirts.) Maria Ouspenskaya gives one of the most memorable and imitated performances in the history of horror as the gypsy who guides Larry. She really does draw all the viewers’ attention with her voice and stare when she’s onscreen. And, of course, we can’t forget Bela Lugosi as…Bela? Ok. Whatever. His appearance is brief, but his shock at seeing the pentagram on Jenny’s hand is powerful and sets the film off on its frenzied pace.

And perhaps the most primal element that makes this film work is fear. The scenes move fast before the full moon rises, especially when Larry races home from the terrified gypsy camp and past Gwen. There are also the scenes of gossiping villagers who go from kind townsfolk to untrusting accusers after the first werewolf attack. It helps to keep the lead character uncomfortable, leading, ultimately, to the film’s climax. (Writer Curt Siodmak, another Jewish-German ex-patriot, based the scenes on Nazi Germany, where he saw his kindly neighbors become raving national socialists.)
Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot (the Wolf Man): Finally, Chaney in his iconic role. Did you know it took Jack Pierce up to four hours a day to apply the rubber nose and curled yak hair needed to complete the werewolf look? (And yes, this is what he originally crated for Henry Hull to wear in WoL.) You know, I’ve been really hard on Chaney so far. But to be fair, the Count and the Monster really didn’t leave much room to work with. Here, Chaney’s in his element: that of the tragic character brooding over his fate.

What makes this performance work- from the actor’s side- is the human element. Chaney starts off as a happy-go-lucky prodigal son just excited to be home. Then he switches to foreboding in the shop and camp before plunging into outright fear for the remainder of the movie. His despair at the first approaching transformation dominates the scene, even with the special effects. (Given that he’s wearing a tank top, he looks like someone who’s had too much to drink and is breaking down.) It’s this side that makes us feel for Larry, know that he’s not in control of his own actions, and ultimately feel sorry for him, despite his death being necessary to stop his evil alter ego.

Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man (Universal, 1943) Trailer

Plot: We open to a title screen of Bubbling Chemicals! (Good or bad sign? You make the call.) Cut to the Talbot family grave, four years after Larry Talbot’s (Lon Chaney Jr.) death. A pair of graverobbers break in to steal jewels buried with Larry in his casket. They also remove all the wolfbane buried with him. As you might expect by now, it’s a full moon. The light hits Larry’s corpse, and, well, the other guy runs off in the realization that he needs to interview for a new partner.

The next morning, Larry wakes up in a hospital, his head bandaged (from being struck by his dad with the cane; nice touch). He unsuccessfully tries to convince the doctors he’s a werewolf by showing them his bite scar. Wait…didn’t that thing heal instantly? After the Incompetent Cop, (Dennis Hoey) who wanted to put Larry in jail on suspicion of murder (committed by Wolf-Larry, though there’s no legal proof), checks Larry’s background, Larry breaks out to seek the gypsy Maleva (f Maria Ouspenskaya) for help in finding a way to die for good. Together, they go to Vasaria for help.
Once there, Maleva asks to see Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein. Wait? Ludwig? He was a psychiatrist. Except when he was also a surgeon. He also had nearly nothing to do with the Monster. Ah, well. The two receive a traditional Vasarian greeting of “GET THE **** OUT!” after learning Ludwig is dead and being directed to the ruins of Castle Frankenstein on top of a hill next a dam and hydroelectric plant. And, wait…hold on. Is this Henry’s observation-tower-in-the middle-of-nowhere-but-later-becomes-a-castle-in-the-town-of-Frankenstein that was torn down at the start of GoF? Or is it Ludwig’s mansion/asylum/surgical ward that burned down at the end of ‘Ghost?” -the one located behind a gate in the middle of a forest? I don’t know.

After Maleva is taken to be tortured by the villagers, (who’s the real monster again?), Larry finds the Monster (Bela Lugosi) frozen in ice(!) under the ruins. To make a long story short, he runs into Ilsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey, taking over for Evelyn Ankers) and Dr. Mannering (Peter Knowles), the asylum doctor he met at the start of the film. They find Ludwig’s notebooks (which sound a LOT more like they were written by Henry; they’re also cleverly labeled “The Secret of Life and Death”), they find the machines may be able to permanently drain bodies of energy.
Mannering prepares the experiment and, at the last minute, decides to reverse things since, as a Man of Science, he can’t just kill the Monster, but wants it alive to be researched. (You know, every year billions and billions of mistakes are made by Mad Scientists in this universe. If you know one, please, tell them to sit back, relax, drink a COSMOpolitan, and not screw up reality by being an idiot.) At the same time- yeah, you guessed it- a Pitchfork-and-Torch Mob have arrived to destroy the damn and the castle along with it. The experiment backfires (of course), the Monster and Wolf Man fight (actually one of the best scenes in the movie), the damn blows up, and the castle is destroyed.
Thought and Background: Very little to add. I think my synopsis made my thoughts pretty clear. It’s an odd example of a double-sequel (in this case, to ‘the Wolf Man’ and ‘Ghost of Frankenstein’). There’s some semblance of continuity, especially in the part of the Wolf Man. Vasaria (the word ‘Germany’ was removed as it was 1943), on the other hand, is a mishmash of every ‘Frankenstein’ movie Universal had produced by then. Yeah, this was made for cash.
Bela Lugosi as the Frankenstein Monster: Poor Bela. Depending on who you believe, he either turned down the role of the Monster in the original film or was replaced outright when James Whale was named director. Now playing the role 12 years later, he’s hardly in the movie. Why? Well, the original plan was for the Monster to be blind (as he was at the end of GoF) and to speak with Ygor’s voice! (“I, Ygor”? Maybe.) And the Monster would regain sight in the final experiment. The scenes were even shot, but then cut. I’ve found some reasons: one was that audiences found Ygor-Monster’s talk of taking over the world too similar to Hitler. (It was World War II.) But the more accepted reason is that audiences thought the Monster speaking with Lugosi’s Hungarian accent was ridiculous and all dialogue shots were removed. That leaves only one legacy for this version of the Monster: walking stiffly in the now-well-known ‘monster walk’- which was originally to be explained as the result of his blindness. Sigh.
Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot (the Wolf Man): Chaney steps right back into the role without missing a beat. Again, Larry is a sad-sack, tragic figure. Now, revived by the full moon, he only wants to die once and for all. The character is fine, but it’s missing the impact found in ‘The Wolf Man.’ I think this is due to him not having sympathetic characters to play off of and the question of insanity not addressed as much. It’s a good performance, but the script lets Chaney down.

House of Frankenstein (Universal, 1944) Trailer

Plot: The vile Mad Scientist Dr. Gustav Niemann (Boris Karloff), locked away in a medieval dungeon, spends his time scrawling complex, made-up equations on the walls, sketching diagrams of the human brain for Mrs. Webber’s Fourth Grade class, and worshipping Dr. Frankenstein, as his brother worked for Dr. F. Wait, brother? Who was that? Waldman? Uh, not likely. Fritz? No, he was a dumb hunchback. Pretorius? I doubt it. Guess we gotta just accept.

Just then a bolt of lightning strikes destroys the prison, allowing Niemann and his assistant, ‘friend’ Daniel- another hunchback- to escape without the use of a sewage pipe or paper mâché mannequin. Once out, they come upon a traveling freak show run by Dr. Lampini, whose main attraction is the skeleton of Count Dracula, which he found in its resting place in the Carpathian Mountains. (Pay no attention to the fact that the last time we saw Drac he was being ashen-ated by the sun in a swamp outside New Orleans.) And, of course, Niemann has Daniel kill Lampini so the duo can take over.
On their way to Viseria (again?! and what’s with the new spelling?), they stop to revive Drac and exact revenge on the Burgomeister who helped put Niemann in prison. Well, actually Dracula does everything on his own. And he only does it get the old man out of the way, attempt to vampirize the guy’s daughter, and head off in a carriage. Niemann and Daniel follow as Drac is pursued. They ditch Drac’s coffin on the side of the road, and leave him to the sun. End Act 1.
Once in Viseria (or is it the town of Frankenstein? This is hard to follow.), the two are joined by a gypsy woman Daniel rescues. Under the ruins of Castle Frankenstein (oh, good Lord), they find the Monster and the Wolf Man, who is restored to good old Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.). Niemann promises to cure Larry with a brain transplant if he helps out. Hold the phone…when did this come about? And when was a brain transplant the cure for a curse? And how does Niemann know all about Larry’s history if he’s been locked up for fifteen years? I need to stop thinking.
They finally reach Viseria and Niemann’s castle complete with The Lab. (We know this because at the front gate reads “Forbidden Grounds.”) Niemann then kidnaps two other locals who helped put him in prison, promising to put their brains in other bodies and make them suffer.

At this point, I should mention that a love triangle has developed: gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) has a crush on Larry. (Really? Did women really like Lon Chaney Jr. that much?) At the same time, Daniel has unrequited love for Ilonka. (He also realizes that Niemann won’t keep his promise to give Daniel a better body.) All this happens after another werewolf kill results in the villagers of Viseria enacting brownshirt justice and reaching for their farm implements. (And yes, I am aware of the irony of saying that about a movie whose story was written by Curt Siodmak). You know, in this film, the villagers’ barbarian sense of justice and mob-ish bloodlust has reached a new level. I honestly would have loved to see Dr. Niemann make the Monster all-powerful and set it loose on them.
The climax arrives as Wolf-Larry attacks Ilonka in a Fog-Enshrouded Forest, but is shot by her with a silver bullet. They both die of their wounds. Daniel drags Ilonka’s body back to the lab (Monster experiment ongoing), and tries to kill the backstabbing Niemann. The Monster (Glenn Strange) awakens and kills Daniel just as the Torches-and-Pitchforks Mob enters the castle, having decided for the fourth film now that SJW violence is the highest state of society. The Monster carries Niemann out of the castle, only to wade into some quicksand, where the two appear to drown.
Thoughts and Background: Overall, I’d have to call this film entertaining, but disappointing. Most of the Monsters’ appearances- particularly Dracula and the Monster- are just cameos. It almost feels there are too many characters for any of them to have a decent scene or story arc yet most of the focus is on a character made up solely for the film in question. This film is an OK watch, mostly because of Karloff. I’d recommend a casual viewing with friends at night.

Boris Karloff as Dr. Gustav Niemann: It’s Boris’ swan song; his final chronological appearance in a Universal horror film. Niemann isn’t a deep character, but Karloff accentuates all of his traits. Niemann is deceitful, manipulative, somewhat charming at times, and driven, though focused and mostly aware of his surroundings. This movie sinks or swims with Niemann, and Karloff provides just the anchor needed for the vignettes to circle around.
J. Carrol Nash as Daniel (the Hunchback): The latest cripple lackey in the tradition of Fritz in ‘Frankenstein’ and Karl in ‘Bride of Frankenstein’. (Ygor was never a lackey.) Daniel has a slight story arc as he pines for the gypsy woman Ilonka, who doesn’t bear such feelings for him. He blames his looks; she calls out his jealousy over Larry. Gullible and small-minded, I really don’t feel anything for him.
John Carradine as Count Dracula: Finally, the most cadaverous actor of all time gets to play an animated cadaver. Too bad it’s the wimpiest version of Dracula there is. Drac pledges his services to Niemann in return for Niemann guarding his coffin and not staking. Master of All Evil, ladies and gentlemen! BTW, when they’re at the inn where Drac tries to seduce the Burgomesier’s daughter, he offers a toast. A toast?! I thought he “never drank…wine.” Ah, Drac. You and Bond. Women will be your undoing.

Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot (the Wolf Man): Weepy, whiney Larry is back. And, yes, he desperately wants either to die or at least be operated on. You know, I really liked the character the first time I saw him. But there’s only so much moping I can take. Still, he is one of only two well-rounded characters in this movie. Oh, and the reason for the Forced Romance? Well, they worked in the reverse idea from WoL: that only a person who loves a werewolf, knowing their suffering, can actually kill them. Too bad they couldn’t develop this story line a little more.

Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster: Motionless for most of the movie, he only moves for a few minutes at the very end of the film after being revived in The Lab. Though Chaney and Lugosi started the trend of the Monster’s stiff movements,(on account of it being blind), it’s Strange’s portrayal of the Monster that created the slow, bumbling, mute, and unintelligent modern caricature of the Monster. Gone are the days of Karloff’s fast, nimble, thoughtful and curious portrayal. And both the character and the audience are poorer for that loss.

House of Dracula (Universal, 1945) Trailer

Plot: Once again, we return to Visaria, where a tall, pale, consumptive figure calling himself “Count Latos” meets with Dr. Franz Edlemann (Onslow Stevens) at the latter’s modernized castle home. The figure quickly reveals that he’s really Count Dracula (John Carradine) and, almost on the verge of tears, asks Edlemann to help cure his vampirism. Not only is Edlemann astonishingly accepting of all this, but I never thought Drac could ever be played as such a wimp. Oh, boy.
The revolving door for supernatural creatures suffering from MDD opens as Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) arrives, begging for the Doc to cure him as well. (The basis for all of this is Edlemann’s research into anatomy and the effects of clavaria, a plant the Doc is cultivating that alters human bone growth.) When the Doc can’t act as fast as Larry wants, the latter gets himself thrown in jail for safety purposes and transforms into his alter ego in front of everyone.

Larry attempts suicide the next day by throwing himself off a cliff. The Doc finds him in a cave where they discover the Frankenstein Monster with Dr. Niemann’s skeleton. (That’s as close to continuity as we’re getting to continuity between these films, I guess.) Because of the humidity, the Doc realizes he can more of the much-needed clavaria in the cave. He also, naturally, brings the Monster back to The Lab to revive it and then…stops. He says it would be too dangerous. Wait. A logical decision? No disregarding safety? What’s going on here?
Meanwhile, Dracula sets his eyes on Milizia (Martha O’Driscoll), one of the Doc’s assistants. (Forgot to mention: Edlemann is treating Dracula with blood transfusions- using his own blood- that may end the vampirism. Also, Drac is keeping his coffin with Transylvanian earth in the basement to stay close to the castle.) He tries to seduce her just before the Doc and his other assistant, the hunchbacked Nina (Jane Adams), intervene. The Doc decides to get rid of Dracula. Another rational decision?!
Edlemann sets Drac up for another transfusion, which he secretly rigs to kill the Count. But Drac figures out the plan and reverses the process- putting his blood into the Doc. A chase ensues, with the Doc taking a different course of action- dragging the Count’s coffin into the sun and skeletonizing him. But not long after, the Doc sees his reflection disappear and he gains a malevolent appearance. (This evil side comes and goes randomly.)
Finally, Edlemann gives Larry a cranial operation that should relieve pressure on the brain (which the Doc thinks is the true cause of Larry’s lycanthropy). And guess what? It works! However, Dracula’s blood eventually overcomes Edlemann. He kills a gardener, getting the attention of the (actually competent) police and, of course, the villagers. At the end, Evil Edlemann kills Nina and revives the Monster. Larry shoots Edlemann and sets fire to the Lab. He and the others waive off the Pitchforks-and-Torches Mob in time to trap the Monster in the fire just before the Abrupt Ending.

Thoughts and Background: What can I say? I really like this film! The last few movies saw the characters simply going through the motions. Here, each character (or archetype) is given something different to do or work with (which I’ll explain). Also, the characters act smart for a change. Doctor Edlemann ignores scientific curiosity and refuses to bring the Monster back to life. The police initially suspect Larry as the gardener’s killer, since he’s a werewolf. But it’s pointed out the moon wasn’t full and Larry was in no shape to tun after his operation. The policeman (Lionel Atwill) even rebukes the idiot villager for jumping to conclusions! Yay! New ideas are injected into this film’s story and they are greatly appreciated.
John Carradine as Count Dracula: I was ready to write this off as the wimpiest Dracula ever. (Hammer Stu-dee-O’s, where are you?) His seduction of Milizia was par the course and could be dismissed as typical Hollywood Dracula. However, the Count sets things in motion when he reverses the transfusion and gives Edlemann an evil side. Then I remembered that Dracula said he met Milizia in another city. That made me think. Did Drac poison the Doc because his plan was revealed, or was he only doing this to get close to Milizia and make her his latest bride? That’s the level of characterization I want.
Onslow Stevens as Dr. Franz Edlemann: Not a mad scientist. An honest one. The script reveals the truth about the Count and Larry quickly, sparing us the whole “unbelieving scientist” cliche. Edlemann is also smart and not foolish, as noted above. However, the unforeseen actions of Dracula leaves him in a Jekyll-and-Hyde condition. Nice. It’s his unrestrained evil that ultimately causes the final showdown, not the stupidity as seen in other scientists in this series. In this case, change is good.

Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot (the Wolf Man): Larry starts off as his standard mopey, suicidal self. (And with a mustache this time.) But once the Doc comes up with a diagnosis and cures Larry, everything changes. Larry gets to show loyalty and even heroism as he stands by the Doc’s side. (He can feel Edlemann’s pain of having a vile alter ego.) He promises, at Edlemann’s request, to kill the Doc if all other attempts at a cure fail. He then warns the villagers and appears to sacrifice himself at the end to stop the Monster. It’s a side of Larry I would’ve liked to have seen earlier.
Jane Adams as Nina (the Hunchback): A different take on the hunchback (or just deformed) character as well. The previous such characters- Fritz, Karl, Ygor, and Daniel- were all either stupid or selfish characters. In this story, Edlemann is about to operate on Nina and make her normal. She puts off her operation so Edlemann can operate on Larry instead. It’s a complete reverse of the other figures. And it makes Edlemann’s evil side all the more detestable when he kills her.

Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster: The only figure here who gets nothing new to do. Well, four out of five ain’t bad. Here, the Monster only shows up at the end and creates havoc and chaos. Not much here. However, you could say that the Monster acts as a plot point- showcasing the different reactions of Edelmann’s good and evil sides. The Monster’s presence is also what allows Larry to show off his newfound courage. So, in a way, despite not getting any new characteristics or stories himself, the Monster allows the other characters to grow. And the result is a movie superior to its predecessors.

This is also the last article we’re going to squeak in before the kids hit the streets in their new outfits, demanding treats from their neighbors or else. So, on that note…
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